Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Question-ing Mehdi Hasan

I actually wrote this about three and a half weeks ago but, owing to my second eye operation, haven't round to publishing it until now. That being the case, the relevence of the piece is disputable at best. Nontheless, I hope you can take something from it.



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Being rather liberal and extremely leftist in my outlook, I agreed with the majority of what the New Statesman's senior political editor Mehdi Hasan had to say on Thursday's episode of Question Time. He made some good points – elaborated on here: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/mehdi-hasan/2011/12/facts-benefit-figures-tax - about the hypocrisy of David Cameron and co.’s jibes about the unions’ funding of the Labour party, given that, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Conservative Party now enjoy the majority of their funding – 51% - from the City, up from the measly 25% it was prior to his assumption of leadership.

Hasan also excellently exposed Constance Briscoe’s populist, arrant Daily Mail themed nonsense about how too many benefit claimants ‘choose not to work’ and, quite literally, benefit from a ‘something for nothing’ culture. When he prompted her for some idea as to how many fall into this category, Briscoe retorted angrily that she had ‘no idea’ and that as ‘the politician’, it was him that ‘should tell’ her, not the other way around. Out of touch, middle aged, male, Oxbridge-educated judges, eh? Erm, well… (I hadn’t heard of Briscoe before Thursday and so assumed that she was one of the Justice system’s fast-track responses to the stereotype casting a shadow over her profession. In reality, it was evidently just a very convincing – though presumably rather expensive – disguise).

As Hasan explained, given that there is an unemployed/available jobs ratio of 5.7 to 1, the levels of joblessness are largely self-explanatory. And he was preaching to the converted about the enormous potential benefits of the Robin Hood Tax.

I was bewildered in the extreme, though, by a particular point he made about the EU – one he neglected to reprise in his blog (you can see it at 25.35 here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0187xz9#p00mfdp7). He claimed, on the topic of a potential EU treaty referendum, that, although the public have never previously been given a referendum on Europe, they could always turn to ‘UKIP and BNP’ for ‘a way out’, but noted that ‘they don’t get many votes’.

Arguably, this is not quite as pressing anymore, knowing what we know now (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2072616/Yes-Cameron-got-right-Most-voters-agree-PM-vetoing-treaty-changes--half-think-quit-EU.html?ito=feeds-newsxml) but, nonetheless, Mehdi, please tell me you’re joking?! Just to clarify, if anyone who, regardless of their political persuasions, thinks that the public should have a say (just a say – remember, of course, that referenda are not binding) in Britain’s involvement in this all-encompassing Superstate, then they should either vote UKIP or BNP or else accept they have no grounds for complaint?
There are, of course, several reasons neither of these parties ‘get many votes’. As well as all the practical considerations that come with living in (something vaguely resembling) a liberal democracy, preventing the hearts of otherwise ardent UKIP and/or BNP supporters from guiding their hands in the voting booth – deferring instead to their heads; there are obviously other factors that restrain, to varying degrees, all those who wouldn’t be as inclined to vote for either of them even if they thought they had a realistic chance of winning their constituency’s seat. Be they Anarcho-Communists or moderate Conservatives.

The former Party is a fairly populist, right-wing organisation that would freeze immigration into the UK for the next five years and would limit it to 50, 000 for every year thereafter. It would also cut various taxes, most alarmingly corporation tax. Perhaps less worrying for more left inclined centre-rights but potentially still fairly so for those of a more hardcore left-wing persuasion, are their plans to increase the defence budget by 40% and the army numbers by 25% (http://www.ukip.org/media/pdf/UKIPManifesto2010.pdf). Many would also argue that they are excessively nationalistic – to the point of jingoism. Indeed, a study this year from three British academics claimed it was similar to the BNP in this regard, though growing increasingly more tame (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6765.2011.01994.x/pdf).

The British National Party themselves, though, are, as is almost universally agreed, racist in all but name. Nick Griffin and co. would end all immigration and endeavour to promote; aggressively - possibly by force, one can reasonably assume; an already existing, voluntary repatriation scheme (http://communications.bnp.org.uk/ge2010manifesto.pdf). And then that is perhaps but a mere scratch of their ideology’s surface.

This is not to say that there are not some things about both parties which, in themselves, might endear themselves to voters like me. No, honestly! UKIP, though cutting corporation tax, would also cut it entirely for minimum wage workers, for example. Even more importantly, it would place considerably more power in the hands of the electorate via direct democracy – allowing them the means to command a referendum on an issue with much greater ease than they currently do. It would also abolish university tuition fees.

And the BNP, whilst undoubtedly Far Right on immigration and, well, foreigners generally, is actually left of centre on some of its economic policies. It would, for instance, increase the inheritance tax level to £1 million and oppose the privatisation of ‘national monopolies’ such as the Royal Mail.

So clearly there are reasons for people from all areas of the spectrum to vote for or against UKIP and the BNP and, from most of these voters’ perspective, we can safely assume that the bad is viewed as far outweighing any good that could come from backing either of these two angry, young parties (though this is plainly truer of the latter than the former). And this applies to no one more so than those who, like me, harbour a left-wing and/or liberal standpoint on things, given the internationalist, pro-immigration aspects of those ideologies.

So, in short, it doesn’t seem entirely reasonable what Mr Hasan is suggesting. People may deem the issue of the EU and/or a referendum on it to be important – but the majority evidently don’t view its current price as value for money (or vote in this case). In the broader context, this is not one of the principal issues that will determine their allegiances – they can’t afford for it to. And I can only empathise.

And that’s the problem with the current system. Without the option of some kind of referendum/referenda to balance out the effect of all three of the main parties pro-EU stance, then people have no way of expressing their true opinion and that only breeds disillusionment. A feeling of neglect and irrelevance. The sort of disillusionment that in turn has been known to breed increased sympathy with the BNP’s ancestors, most notably in post-WWI Germany.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating. It would certainly be a very pessimistic outlook. But surely, as the electorate, we are entitled to exert pressure on our representatives – outside of election time – to persuade them to pursue what we feel to be the right course of action?

I’m just trying to highlight how trivial, presumptuous, unfair and potentially dangerous I find Hasan’s flippancy to be.

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As for the actual question of whether Britain should actually be the EU or not; frankly, I’m not nearly well-versed enough to give a comprehensive answer. What I do feel able to say though is that you don’t necessarily have to be little-Englander or right wing to recognise fundamental flaws within Europe.

As Hasan’s fellow New Statesman contributor, Owen Jones, wrote this week about what Mehdi’s fellow Question Time panellist Tristram Hunt bizarrely implied wasn’t a ‘seismic political question’ (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/12/european-treaty-cameron-stop):

‘The left really needs to have a long, hard think about its attitude to the EU as it is currently constructed. There's still a sense that any criticism of the EU puts you in the same box as swivel-eyed Ukip-ers who rant about gypsies in shire inns. But there's a powerful left critique that needs to be made.

We've already had elected governments in Italy and Greece toppled by the bond markets with the complicity of senior EU figures. Successive compacts (such as the Lisbon Treaty) have enshrined the privatisation of public services. It was EU Directive 9/440 that made it a legal requirement for private companies to be able to run train services, and the European Court of Justice has issued judgments that have attacked workers' rights, much as making it possible for individuals to sue unions.

The new treaty is just the latest attack on European democracy – and against the European left. So let's stop taunting Cameron, and start working out how we can unite with the European labour movement to stop this total disaster in its tracks.’

Of course, it is inevitable with liberal ‘democracy’ as we understand it, that you will always have undemocratic organisations and behaviours but a line has to be drawn somewhere. And, if the prognosis for the left is as grave as Jones fears, then perhaps Mehdi Hasan. when he closes his post by saying that ‘those of us on the left, who call ourselves progressives, need to ensure that these points are raised, discussed and circulated, online, on air and in print. The spread of conservatism, and conservative economics, relies on ignorance, not evidence’, should broaden his horizons yet further and continue to do just that and more.

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